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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries
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A slice of Danish ham

Wagner audiences differ from allothers. At Covent Garden the ‘corporates’tend not to ask their favouriteclients to endure five hours of Wagnerunless they are aficionados. There isin the foyer instead an earnestness, asense of anticipation, and a morethan usual sprinkling of heavilyaccented English accents. The eyes ofone’s fellow patrons hint at a passionfor Wagner that verges on mania. Thisis not so much a visit to the theatre asritual homage to the master. We knowthat this rite may involve some messyand unseemly production values onstage, but the sacrifice is worth it ifour fulfilment is complete as the curtainfinally falls. This is Parsifal –Wagner’s last opera.ShakyLet’s deal with the bad news first. Theeponymous hero was a disappointment.He’s meant to be an innocent,foolish but ultimately heroic youth.Stig Andersen from Denmark mayonce have been an excellent heldentenorbut he is now clearly of middleage and sports a rather obvious sparetyre. His expression throughout theevening did not change and thewords foolish and heroic were supplantedin my mind by the wordsgormless and flabby. When he brieflydonned armour he moved disjointedlyand remarkably as either Bill orBen. Judging from their demeanourthroughout the evening, it is possiblethat certain implausibly attractiveyoung ladies in the audience thoughtthey were coming to see not Parsifalbut Carousel. Often Mr Andersenlooked as bemused as they.By contrast, the remaining principalcast of John Tomlinson (Gurnemanz),Violeta Urmana (Kundry), ThomasHampson (Amfortas), and WillardWhite (Klingsor) was outstanding.Tomlinson was his usual model ofclear diction and Hampson’s agonisingalmost too painful to watch.Urmana suffered from proximity tothe Danish pastry for much of thetime but her Act 2 revelation scene(Dich nannt’ ich) was perfect. The productionwas banal but that’s par forthe course. Did we really need a sharkhanging from the ceiling of his castleas a metaphor for Klingsor’s motivesand the predatory nature of theFlower Maidens?RattleBut within seconds of Sir SimonRattle’s baton being raised a frisson ofelectricity ran through the audience.The hairs on the nape of my neckstood up. For the next five and a quarterhours (but excluding 75 minutesof intervals) he wrought from theorchestra of the Royal Opera Housesounds that I have only heard twicebefore in 158 visits over the years toCovent Garden. The others were duringDie Walküre under Haitink in1989 and Gergiev’s Lohengrin in 1997.Sir Simon exposed inner parts of thescore that were an exciting revelation.Wagner’s operas are infamous fortheir longeurs, those quarts d’heurewhen one might be tempted to thinkof the commonplaces of life – theneed to pay taxes, the state of theLondon Underground system, and soon. Sir Simon ensured that thosemoments were full of interest. Hefound new ways of letting us hearoboe or clarinet run in counterpointto the sung melody; or of brassemphasising the message on stage.The strings were shimmering and SirSimon’s reception at curtain call wasecstatic. His control of the orchestrawas masterful. What a perfectevening!Roll onBooks have been written aboutwhether Parsifal is an homoeroticfantasy, an anti-Semitic diatribe, or aretelling of Christian tradition. Thereal questions posed that evening forme were these: How soon will it bebefore Sir Simon conducts the RingCycle? And will it be in London? Andwill I be able to get a ticket?

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